Mommy, she said, my skin is lighter than yours, because I am just a beginner Arab.
Later, she added: You are a middle Arab and Teta is an advanced Arab.
I laughed, and we have joked about it since then. But I can't stop thinking about it. I am haunted by this sentence: I am a beginner Arab.
|Teaching my daughter to roll out Arabic bread.|
I wonder if these words will always be careless for my daughter.
These words became sharp for me when we moved from Cairo to Jerusalem. In Cairo, we had lived the expat life, going to British school and English-speaking churches, swimming at the international hotels and playing with little British children. My mother cooked simple, basic Arabic foods - rice, vegetables, cooked meats, salads, yogurt. But once we moved back to her land, so many things changed. Suddenly, I was surrounded by cousins and grandparents. I was expected to (learn to) speak Arabic. We spent our time with our Palestinian neighbors, friends, relatives, sharing large meals around long tables with plastic chairs. And almost all of these foods were new and foreign to me, piles of steaming, stuffed vegetables. There was no more spaghetti or pizza.
Why don't you speak Arabic? everyone asked me.
I couldn't explain why my tongue didn't work any more than I could explain why my skin was brown. I didn't have the words to tell my story, which started, of course, before I even had words. All I knew was that I was broken. I was an Arabic-less half-Arab. And now here I am, too old to really learn.
I just can't, I would say. My answer was as bitter as the spring green almonds that children stole from our almond tree.
And so, I ate the food. I dipped my bread in the labani and the olive oil, I braved the mansaf and waraq dawali heaped high on my plate, and then I ran outside with the children to play under the fig trees. I learned new words. I listened. I sat with my grandmother and watched her crochet, helped my mother snap beans for dinner and fried the nuts for the rice.
That was many years ago, now. I find myself asking, as I stir my pots of Palestinian foods, can you be a "beginner" Arab? Is my Arabness (or Americanness) something that I can learn, that I can progress with, that I can advance in, as I learn more? Am I more Arab if I cook Arab food? If I study Arabic? If I go back to Palestine more often? If I am more educated on our politics and history? Is my Arabness something that I possess, that I can become more proficient in, or is it my birthright, a gift given to me at birth?
How do you answer this question? You who are like me, who know what it is to grow up between worlds, how have you answered this?
I would love to know. I am not sure that I have an answer.
I do know this. Somehow, I am okay with this question now. There was a time when the question itself was too painful to even speak out loud, to admit. I might not have the answer, but what I do now have is peace in my identity: I have my story of someone who ran from that question, then ignored the question, and then through years of walking down dusty roads of faith, has found peace.
UPDATE: NPR is running a special series of articles from the Race Card Project, in which it highlights real stories of people's thoughts on race. You can find them here: NPR's Series, The Race Card Project. I particularly related to the one titled, Living in Two Worlds, But With Just One Language. To read more six word race cards, or to submit your own, go to www.theracecardproject.com .